Is fighting over "the sisterhood" holding us back?

Singling out female friendships for scrutiny has ceased to do us any favours, say Rhiannon and Holly.

How should one go about befriending a woman? This seemingly simple question has baffled both genders for time immemorial (read: at least 25 years.) ‘Can men and women be friends?’ has, of course, been bandied about as the eternally unanswerable anthropological equivalent of ‘what is the meaning of life?’ for quite some time, resulting in an abundance of controversial essays, playground/office japes, and toe-curlingly embarrassing rom coms.

As the world dealt with this for a decade, limited edition copies of When Harry Met Sally clutched tightly in their speculating hands, the other inevitable question lay low for a while. But now that bromances are all the rage and same-sex friendship is once again under the spotlight, we seem to be revisiting the strictly female side of befriending women. We have started to once again ask ourselves ‘can women truly be friends with women?’

In the dysfunctional ocean of the internet, everyone is willing to stick an oar in. ‘Women are such bitches to each other,’ is a common phrase, predominantly on American websites. And in a way, who could blame them? The view pumped out by the Hollywood media is mostly that of ultra-flaky girlie girls who are best friends until the latest lipgloss runs out or Robert Pattinson walks by.

Meanwhile, their menfolk retain a more steadfast loyalty to their brothers, who they continue to chest-bump affectionately during nights out to the football before complaining over beer about the wives they chose to propose to. Following the ‘logic’ of this skewered worldview, there are now entire websites dedicated to deconstructing why women are ‘so bitchy’ to other women. A lot of them have gone so far as to suggest that ‘women being bitches’ is scientifically natural and/or proven, painting the vast majority of female friendships as superficial constructs developed to get them closer to something they’d really like instead (men, money, fame, anything fluffy and pink.) It’s safe to say that out there in cyberspace, the sisterhood really isn’t coming off that well.

So is it true that we’ve all abandoned the sisterhood and become back-stabbing bitches instead? Back in the days when being a feminist was trendy and your boyfriend wouldn’t bat an eyelid at a couple of inches of armpit hair, sisters were doing it for themselves and they wanted people to know it. Even the nineties brought a healthy dose of Simon Fuller-sanctioned girl power in the shape of the Spice Girls. And then very quickly, the cool factor in female loyalty seems to have wound up abandoned on the dressing room floor, crumpled in a sad heap alongside Geri Halliwell’s signature Union Jack minidress. We may not have actually have suddenly turned on each other en masse, but pop culture definitely got sick of us liking each other.

The next time ‘the sisterhood’ came under real public discussion was arguably not until Caitlin Moran’s bestseller, How To Be A Woman, hit the shelves. It turned out that she had an entirely new take on it anyway. In short, Moran didn’t believe in ‘the sisterhood’ - and she put forward a great catalogue of reasons why you shouldn’t, either. If girls refuse to criticise girls, it destroys our credibility and turns us all into sexists, she claimed. In order to be taken seriously, we can’t be seen to be enacting the prejudice that has been used against us, however pretty the packaging for that prejudice is. ‘The sisterhood’ is just another idea we should leave in the seventies, along with the mullet and tie-dye dungarees, she suggested. And it’s certainly difficult to deny that on the surface, a conscious effort to protect other women from scorn just looks like replacing an old type of shitty bias with a new one.

The counter-argument says that at its best, a ‘sisterhood’ mentality provides respite in a world where the odds are already stacked against us. By sticking together, we’re merely working towards redressing that imbalance. And undeniably, there are some ‘head slamming on desk’ historical moments when we definitely feel a loyalty to the sisterhood should have stepped in: no pointing fingers, Elizabeth I, but certain monarchs who claimed to be better at their jobs because they were ‘more like a man’ didn’t do us any favours. Maggie Thatcher, likewise, is said to have claimed that there were hardly any women clever enough to be in politics, never mind follow in her own (terrifying) footsteps. Jokes about how much brains it takes to snatch a milk carton off a child aside, the spirit of Thatcher lives on in a significant minority of modern women across boardrooms and operating theatres and laboratories alike, claiming that the key to their success lies in being ‘different from most women’. Ladies, please. Get back here and start hitting those home runs for your own team, rather than defecting to the other side the moment you’ve honed your skills.

The return of the contentious issue of female friendship hasn’t escaped the attention of Jezebel, which published a guide last week on how to be another woman’s friend (if you’re a woman yourself, that is.) Its common sense approach - be honest, yet loyal; stay tolerant; exercise compassion - was essentially a perfect description of friendship, alongside a reminder that the idea of women as two-faced, false harridans with as much depth as a paddling pool isn’t true after all. In fact, the whole article just reinforced human truths that all women (and indeed all people) really know very well. Yet it wasn’t decried as a piece of lazy journalism: it was popular, well-received, and even congratulated for a revolutionary message. Why is that? Well, because we were all so versed in the doublethink of ‘female friendships’ that we lived our own versions of them perfectly happily, while simultaneously believing in the notion of the ‘toxic female friend’ that gets sold to us from every corner. In our droves, us women found it truly a novel message that our friends are really just our friends.

Ultimately, the singling out of female friendships for scrutiny has ceased to do us any favours. But whether you’re with Caitlin that everyone should just be ‘one of the guys’, or with Jezebel that girl-on-girl crime is just bad sense, it’s worth reminding yourself not to buy into the bullshit. If you truly believe that ‘women are such bitches to each other’, then what you really believe is that ‘women are bitches’, full stop.

That means that you’re ten years away from commenting loudly at the roundtable that you wouldn’t have made enough to buy a pair of vintage Louboutins for every day of the week if you were like ‘other women’. And do you want to be that managing director, claiming triumph over the natural handicap of womanhood? Didn’t think so. No one’s asking you to support a system of preferential treatment any more - but if you don’t care to keep a single female friend, sister, then you better start asking yourself why.

Were the Spice Girls friends? Who cares. Photo: Getty

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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"Labour are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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